CMWR Book Club: An Adventure down the Rabbit Hole

Only in the Book Club does a discussion of Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” – a story of a failed child prodigy who tears the fabric of her mother’s American Dream – spiral into conversation about gang life in Chicago.

This quarter, the Book Club focused on diversity, with several non-fiction readings. This lent itself to a tangential navigation of American culture and the cultures of Book Club members. Often, the most entertaining and enlightening discussions occurred when the conversation strayed from the text itself. People felt comfortable to dive in and contribute their own experiences, which were wonderful to hear!

For example, Brent Staples bases his piece, “Walk on By,” on his frustration in being perceived as a safety threat at night – solely due to his ethnicity. Our conversation started as a discussion of racial discrimination in the 60s and 70s, where we empathized with Staples. However, the theme soon took a turn for the practical: never walk alone at night. We then rampantly exchanged safety tips, most often gathered through real life experiences.

With a blush creeping across my face, I told a harrowing tale of a burglary that occurred at my apartment.  My roommate caught a thief “sock-handed”: to prevent finger prints, the burglar had slipped on a matching pair of my roommate’s socks. In the end, what we gleaned from this experience—and the experiences of others—is that it often works in your advantage to be assertive when faced with danger. Not to mention, always lock your deadbolt.

During another session, we launched a fruitful discussion on what it truly means to be home, even as an ex-pat. In Baharati Mukherjee’s piece, “Two Ways to Belong in America,” she champions obtaining dual citizenship as a way to avoid impending strict immigration laws. On the other hand, her sister refuses to obtain U.S. citizenship in order to stay true to her Indian heritage. For her, the U.S. serves as a place to further her professional goals, not one that exudes a welcoming atmosphere.

Many emphatic Book Clubbers stressed that home signifies where we grow up and where family is located, no matter how many years we spend away from that hub. This line of thinking may seem ironic for a group of international students, eager to brave the choppy seas of American professional life. Yet many students come to America for that reason alone: for its professional possibilities, and the prospect of establishing a life here is as distant as the shores of their native countries.

True to form, the idea of creating a home away from home spawned a discussion of marrying someone outside your culture, in a foreign country. We gathered some informal results: Americans can marry whomever they want, despite the possible repercussions. On the other hand, in Chinese culture, parents have a greater influence on their child’s choice of spouse. By no means do these stand as universal truths – they are merely a product of our discussion.

Through the complex, dense nature of the pieces, we found endless possibilities for discussion. The reality of each piece gave it a journalistic spin. From there, we were able to forge human connections with aspects of pieces, almost drafting our own feature stories through the angular discussion. In the end, the authors of these creative non-fiction pieces probably achieved what they intended: to spark a meaningful and genuine conversation, no matter in what direction it leads the reader.

– Gina O.